Ancient Pathways, LLC - School of Primitive Technology and Wilderness Skills Survival Courses [Flagstaff Arizona]

Surviving an Unexpected Night in the Desert

by Tony Nester, Survival Instructor

Each year, there are numerous stories about lost hikers or hunters in the desert who succumb to the elements. Many of these tragedies are preventable and involve a little preparation on the front end coupled with a dose of common sense while on the trail.
During the past twenty years of teaching survival courses, I’ve heard many stories about and from actual survivors. Many of these tales of hardship are prefaced with the following:A Cave for Shelter

“I was only going for a short walk in the woods and got turned around.”

“I got on the wrong trail back to the campsite.”

“I was just trying to take a shortcut back to my car.”

If you retrace the elements that lead to a person surviving a night out, you will find that the predicament begins with their mindset back home prior to the outing.

Lessons Learned
Why do dayhikers comprise 80% of the people lost each year? Because they fail to do two critical things: 1) Leave a travel plan with someone back home 2) Carry the appropriate clothing and survival gear to deal with an unexpected emergency.

This Dayhiker Syndrome is where the making of a survival situation is put into motion and it is a deadly mindset to possess. Who will notify the SAR unit if you don’t return? Where will they look? How will you cope with a cold night in the elements with only the clothes on your back? How will you handle a serious injury?

With the Dayhiker Syndrome, most lost hikers are woefully unprepared to deal with making a shelter and fire, purifying water, handling medical issues, and signaling rescuers.

While sitting on the couch next time, sipping a cup of coffee, and contemplating your morning stroll, remember to:

  1. Leave a note indicating where you will park and hike. Also leave an approximate time of when you will return home and then work out a response plan with your significant other/friend. For example, if I tell my wife that I will be back at 6 pm and then 8 pm rolls around without me returning, she is my safety net on the other end who can make the call for help.
  2. Wear the appropriate clothing and pack along essential survival gear. Stories abound of unprepared hikers heading out with little more than jeans and a t-shirt only to succumb to hypothermia during the night.

Survival Priorities
Should you find yourself in a survival situation, you may be looking at enduring the ordeal for 24-72 hours until SAR personnel can get to your location. This assumes you left that almighty travel plan and that the weather is cooperative. I recall one story of a stranded hiker who was talking with searchers on his cellphone only to have them say that they couldn’t get to him for the next four days due to high winds and an impending snowstorm!A Crevice or Canyon has Shade in the Desert

There are 7 priorities you must take care:

  1. PMA – Positive Mental Attitude
  2. Shelter
  3. Fire
  4. Water
  5. Signaling
  6. First-Aid
  7. Sleep

From the above list, you can see that your priorities are few but this is where a quality survival kit comes into play. Yes, it is possible to make fire by rubbing two sticks together and fashion a lean-to but do you really want to play Jeremiah Johnson when the sun is setting, hypothermia is at your back, and you are coping with injury?! Carry a good survival kit and you will be ahead of the game should Murphy’s Law befall you on the trail.

Why isn’t food on the list? Because we are talking about a narrow window of 1-3 days and your body is hardwired for fasting from our hunter-gatherer heritage. One survivor in the Himalayas went an astonishing 43 days without food and survived because he had shelter, water (melted snow), and the WILL to live in abundance.

In survival courses I teach for military special operations units, we delve into gathering wild plants, trapping, and food procurement but these are long-term wilderness skills and not something a stranded dayhiker should expend precious calories and sweat on. Stay put, hydrated, and keep warm.

PMA is listed at the top for a reason and I will discuss survival psychology in-depth in a future article. One thing that will help and to consider carrying in your survival kit is a photo of your family or loved ones. Pulling that out, when the cold night is upon you in the wilds, will help bolster your willpower and nourish the survivor mindset.

A Survival Kit You Can Live With
I am a fan of making your own survival kit. This is the essence of self-reliance as you know exactly what’s going into the kit, how it works, and that will be tailored to fit you. Life insurance at its best!

You will want to carry enough gear to take care of the “Big 5” survival priorities of: Shelter, Water, Fire, Medical, and Signaling. For a guideline, here’s what I carry:


  • Your first shelter is your clothing so dress appropriately (i.e. avoid 100% cotton and use poly/cotton BDUs, fleece or wool shirts, Underarmor, etc…)
  • Green or brown tarp (6’x8′ from Home Depot)


  • Potable Aqua Iodine
  • 2 to 6 quarts depending on the time of year; 5-20 gallons in the vehicle
  • 2 packets per day of Vitalyte or GU20 electrolyte replacement powder


  • Spark rod
  • Bic lighter
  • REI StormProof Matches
  • Cottonballs smeared with Vaseline stored in a film canister. Use a teaspoon of Vaseline per cottonball to create an excellent wet-weather firestarter.


  • 2″x3″ glass signal mirror
  • Whistle
  • Cellphone


  • Adventure Medical Kit augmented with Fast-Melt Benadryl, Ibuprofen, and GU20 electrolyte powder.

Miscellaneous Items

  • LED Headlamp
  • 30′ of 550 cord
  • Swedish Mora Knife (fixed blade)
  • Swiss Army Knife
  • Jerky/Trailmix

Remember to check the weather in the morning during the rainy season, leave a travel plan, and carry your survival gear at all times. For additional information, check out Tony’s book or DVD on Desert Survival on our Gear page.

Contact Information

Ancient Pathways, LLC
Colorado Springs, CO


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Ever wondered how to handle a worst-case outing in the wilds with only the clothes on your back and a knife? Each year in North America, there are countless cases of unprepared hikers becoming lost and having to endure an unexpected night in the elements, depending only on their wits and abilities. Written in a… Continue >>>

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